It was unusual for FBI Special Agent In Charge Hanna Marx to attend a meeting at the North Portland Police Precinct, especially so early in the morning. But these were unusual times. With the mounting numbers of unexplained homeless deaths across the three counties around Portland and demands for answers coming from every direction imaginable, both she and the Portland police were under intense pressure. Captain Tabor had invited her and her team to join him, a couple of other detectives, the Police Chief, and the Portland Police Medical Examiner for a call from Bruce Magnusson. Magnusson was the FBI analytical chemist at Quantico trying to identify what was killing the homeless victims. Agent James and Karla weren't there since they were focusing on the report about a preacher in Oregon City who was rumored to have it in for the homeless, a possible lead that took precedence over this meeting. But Marx and her deputy, Special Agent Ken Campbell, were perfectly capable of representing the agency and would inform James and Karla about the results of the call.
The call was on time and Tabor answered on the speaker phone. "Dr. Magnusson?"
"Yes, it is."
"Good morning. I'm Tom Tabor, Portland, Oregon, Police. Special Agent In Charge Marx is here for the FBI, as well as others working on this case. Your message said you have important news. Please, fill us in."
"In one sense, it's good news in that we have a strong suspicion of what's killing these people. But not so good since the toxic agent appears to be closely related to one of the most powerful lethal substances known—batrachotoxin. It's collected from certain frogs and used by Amazonian natives as a blowgun dart poison. It kills instantly, and there's no antidote."
The room was silent for a moment. All those around the table were shocked by Magnusson's words. Finally, Marx spoke up. "How confidant are you about this?"
"Greater than ninety-five percent. Sarah Musetti, at Stanford, knows more about these molecules than anyone. She recognized the mass spectroscopy pattern. Two other colleagues I checked with agree with her interpretation—so do I. The trace amounts in the urine samples you sent suggest it’s a modified version of the batrachotoxin parent compound, probably customized for being administered in a specific way. Whoever's making it has to be a highly accomplished organic chemist. They'd have to have sophisticated safety hoods and specialty lab protection, as well. Microgram amounts could be lethal. They'd really have to know what they're doing."
"Is there any way can get a lead on who that might be?" Marx asked.
"I'll ask around and see if any of my chemist friends have any thoughts about that," Magnusson said.
"The sooner the better, like as soon as possible," Marx replied. After she ended the call, she looked at Tabor and said, "Why don't you check local vendors for purchases of lab equipment? The kind of things an operation like this would require."
The police chief spoke for the first time. "Of course, we're going to do that, Agent Marx. But thanks for the reminder."
"No offence, Chief. It's just that I'm feeling heat from Washington. Just crossing the Ts, that's all."
"No offence taken. All right, let's get to work."
As the police and FBI joint meeting was ending, in another part of Portland Madeline finally connected by phone with Pastor Slaggart, who'd been unreachable for the past hour. "What's so important, Madeline? You shouldn't be calling me on this number."
" We need to talk soon. Like now."
"You sound worried. What's wrong?
"Not on the phone, Pastor."
"Hmm. All right. Meet me at the church this evening. I hope it's not bad news. You know how I am about that, don't you?"
"I know," Madeline replied, then ended the call. Her hand shook as she returned the phone to her purse.
After two transfers, a long wait for a late bus, and a three-mile hike along a back road, Karla and Jamie finally made it to Jamie's old camp, as she had decided to do the evening before. It was midafternoon, and some of the campers were beginning to straggle in after another day's struggle to come up with enough money for food and whatever else they needed to survive the challenges of homelessness in an uncaring society. Karla gave Jamie the bag of chicken breasts she'd bought along the way to and told him to give it to whomever was helping prepare the evening meal for the camp. She held back the gallon of wine she'd bought for later. "Do you see the guy who told you about the minister who badmouths homeless people?" she asked when he returned from his delivery.
"No. But a lot of the campers haven't come back yet. Sometimes it's late when they do. I'll keep looking for him. Don't worry. I'll tell you when I see him."
Around eight o'clock, when the chicken stew was mostly gone and Karla's wine was still making the rounds, Jamie nudged Karla. They were sitting around the fire pit with a bunch of the campers, sharing the day's experiences. "That's him. The guy with the dog. His name's Clayman."
Karla looked to where Jamie indicated and saw a bearded man, probably in his thirties, shaggy hair, dirty jeans and jacket, scuffed boots. He held a mangy mongrel dog on a short leash. He sat near the fire next to an older woman. "Anything left in that pot?" he yelled at the old man who served as cook.
"There is if you got three dollars," the old man answered.
The bearded man reached into his pocket, took out a couple of crumpled bills and some change, then spread it out in his palm. Will two-sixty-seven do?"
"Guess it'll have to if that's all ya got. Bad day today?"
"Yeah. Slim pickings. Lots of stingy bastards out there."
The cook took a bowl of stew to the man, gave it to him, then set another bowl on the ground in front of the dog. "He's gotta eat, too," he said, then took the two bills the man held out to him, ignoring the change.
When the man finished the stew, Karla and Jamie walked over and sat on the bench next to him. Jamie said, "Hey, Clayman, How ya doin'?"
"Jamie. What you doin' back here? Thought you and your brother left for good."
"We did. I just came back to see you. This lady here's a friend of mine. She's hoping you can help her find someone she's lookin' for." Jamie nodded at Karla, who was sitting on Clayman's other side.
Karla stuck out her hand, as if for a formal introduction. "Glad to meet you, Clayman. My name is Grace. I'm looking for a cousin. Her family said someone saw her in a church around here. One where the leader says us homeless types need to be exterminated. Jamie said you might know something about him or his church. I could use your help. I'd appreciate it, too."
Clayman looked into Karla's eyes, then at her offered hand. "I might," he said as he accepted her handshake. "Depends on what you mean by appreciate."
"I'll pay you for your help, it that's what you mean. Fair's fair. I've got ten bucks that could be yours if you help me find that pastor."
"Ten dollars ain't that much."
"I've got another six, but that's for me and Jamie's bus fare back to town."
"I can’t do nothin' 'bout that. But it'll take the sixteen for me to tell you what you want to know."
Karla looked at Jamie. "Whaddya think, Jamie. You up for a long walk?"
"Whatever. Sounds like we don't have much choice."
A few miles south of where Karla was questioning Clayman, Pastor Slaggart was scowling ominously at Madeline. They were alone in his office at the church. She was sitting nervously in front of his big desk, cringing at what the so-called clergyman was saying. "If I understand what you just said correctly, we've got two serious problems. First, Chester's frogs, or his little bugs, or whatever the hell they are, aren't cooperating. So, there's not enough toxin for what we need to do. Second, one of your women, the one named Eunice, has gone and got herself identified. And her picture's plastered all over the news. Is that about right, Madeline?"
"Chester's working hard on getting production back up, Pastor. He'll figure it out soon. You know how smart he is. He just needs a little time."
"I hope you're right. But there are powerful people who aren't going to like this delay. I'll do what I can to keep them from doing anything drastic, but I can only do so much. Chester has to be back online in a few days. I doubt I can hold them off longer than that."
"What people are you talking about? You've never mentioned anyone else before."
"Don't act so naïve, Madeline. Where do you think the funds for Chester's lab and all those supplies come from? Those pricy little frogs? Surely not from Sunday collections at this little church."
Madeline was unable to hide her shock at what the pastor had had just told her. "Who are these—?
The pastor cut off Madeline and said, "Don't worry about them. Forget what I said. Now, what about Eunice? We can't risk her being identified then linked to us . . . to our project."
"I told her to stay out of the public eye. All of them are going to wear disguises when they take the contaminated gloves around to the camps. That'll be Wednesday, so we're not losing much time."
"That's not good enough," he replied angrily. "Eunice is too much of a risk. If she was careless enough to be seen leaving off one of your contributions in Gresham, she might make that mistake again."
"Do you want me to drop her from the team? That would be a big loss. She's a good worker and she adds a lot."
"Leave it in my hands. Don't do or say anything. Understand?"
Madeline was taken aback by the tone of the pastor's command. "What do you mean by that?"
"What I mean is . . . find a replacement for Eunice and do it soon. Do you understand what I mean by that, Madeline?"
"Oh my God. You mean you'd really take her off the team?"
"Madeline! Enough! Soldiers don't question orders. They follow them."
Madeline was speechless, afraid to raise further objection to the pastor's order. After a moment, she hesitantly said, "It'll take time to replace her. I can't recruit just anyone."
"Just do it soon. That would be in your own best interest. One more thing, report Chester's progress to me every day." The pastor then abruptly stood to indicate that the meeting was over.
Madeline followed him out of his office, through the makeshift sanctuary, and out the front entrance into the dismal dark parking strip.
Back in his office, he made the call he didn't want to, but knew he had to.
It was late when Karla and Jamie got back to the North Portland camp. The Uber ride Karla paid for prompted Jamie to ask her how she got that much money. Karla told him that it was none of his business in no uncertain terms, and to not mention it to anyone else. After the camp quieted down for the night, Karla left a message for Captain Tabor under the barrel, then turned in for a full night's sleep.
The next morning around ten o'clock, Karla, Tabor, and Agent James were in the FBI headquarters conference room they usually met in. Tabor read Karla's note from the night before out loud:
Oregon City informer said the minister calling for death to homeless people is
named Slaggart. The church is a few miles south of his camp. That's all he knows.
"So, what do you want to do about this?" James asked.
"Pay him a visit. See what I can find out," Karla replied.
"Just walk in and start asking questions? That's not such a good idea. You gotta do better than that."
"All right, How about I tell him I hate the homeless, heard about his message, and want to know how I can help him achieve his goal?"
"You think you could convince him of that? It's a stretch."
"If there's one thing I've learned from you guys, it's how to tell a believable lie. Yeah, I think I can convince him."
Tabor refreshed her coffee, then asked, "When?"
"The sooner the better. Like today. This afternoon."
The three of them spent the next hour fleshing out a plausible cover story for Karla. Then, after a lunch of cheese pizza and fruit salad, Tabor drove Karla to Oregon City. From there she took a taxi to the Immaculate Vision Church, the only church listed in that specific area. Hopefully, it was the church where a minister named Slaggart held court and who would be open to meeting a wealthy woman determined to rid her fair city of the scourge of social parasites.
While Tabor and Karla were on their way to Oregon City, the Portland Police Chief was on a phone call with Dr. Sarah Musetti, the Stanford University chemist who'd identified the toxin as a derivative of batrachotoxin. "It's a longshot but maybe worth following up," she was saying. "His name is Rostislov Roskovich. Apparently, he changed his name to Chester Rose after he became a citizen. He worked in the lab of a colleague of mine at Cal Tech. From what my friend told me, he's a brilliant chemist and experienced in natural products chemistry. She fired him after he stole chemicals and equipment from her lab to set up his own home chemistry laboratory. She said he's a bit of a nut job, too. Those are her words, not mine. He's kind of a recluse, never mixed with others in the lab and kept to himself. But what really caught my attention was that his doctoral thesis was on the synthesis of novel batrachotoxin compounds."
"Does your colleague know where he is now?"
"No. Seems he disappeared several years ago. Nobody's heard from him since."
"All right, Dr. Musetti. Thank you for following up with your colleagues. We'll issue a search bulletin for this guy right away. Please, let us know if you get any further information about him, or anyone else who might be worth looking into.
After the call ended, Chief Samson instructed his administrative assistant to start a country-wide search for Chester Rose, including the name Rostislov Roskovich. Then he called Hanna Marx at the FBI and filled her in on what he'd just learned about the disappeared batrachotoxin chemist. As if the information about Chester Rose hadn't been enough to rev up the wheels of justice, as soon as the chief ended his call with Marx, his assistant rushed into his office with a photo of a woman whose body had been fished out of the Columbia River only an hour earlier. She was a dead-ringer for the woman whom the witness saw entering the Gresham homeless shelter the week before. What next? he wondered as he placed a call to Captain Tabor.